Learning from BTS
The author is a professor of Seoul National University Business School.
K-pop boy band BTS is thriving. Two of the band’s albums topped the Billboard 200 chart in 2018 — a feat that has been achieved by very few singers. The seven-member idol band spoke against youth violence at the United Nations and became the first K-pop band to present at the Grammy Awards. Its international fans — dubbed ARMY — are learning Korean and conversing with one another through the language.
When BTS debuted in 2013, it certainly didn’t look like the typical K-pop band. At the time, most K-pop stars were flawlessly good-looking. Their lyrics centered on idealistic virtues, leading listeners and fans toward some kind of a fantasy world where no evils existed. Some groups even pretended to possess supernatural powers. Idols from powerful entertainment agencies were backed by famous songwriters and lyricists, debuting on such dreamy, make-belief themes. Their labels supported them from the start, attracting media attention even before their first performance on television.
But BTS’ agency — Big Hit Entertainment — was a minor company that couldn’t imitate such cash-draining PR strategies. That didn’t stop the agency from creating today’s most successful K-pop band.
BTS songs were more about reality: putting in effort and sometimes failing, and sometimes even despair and illness. Members did most of their songwriting. Bang Si-hyuk, head of Big Hit Entertainment, encouraged them to express their true emotions through music, not just pretend they felt something they didn’t simply to impress listeners. That’s how the BTS members were able to reflect their own experiences and agonies in their songs, moving the hearts of young fans — even though the lyrics and melodies could be seen as sub-par compared to other professionals’. Fans from around the world confess to being touched by BTS’ lyrics, with some going as far as to shed tears because they’re so relatable.
When BTS debuted, the band’s agency didn’t have enough money to promote it. The members recorded videos of their everyday lives on their own, uploading them on social media to share with their fans. They communicated directly with their fans instead of passing through agency staff members. More people grew fond of the members’ down-to-earth approach.
It took several years for Big Hit Entertainment to grow into what it is today; the fact that the agency didn’t have the resources to advertise BTS like other big-name Korean agencies pushed the company to search for other ways to communicate with fans. Learning from BTS’ example, companies need to try to communicate directly with their consumers: it’s a pity to see a lot of businesses interact with clients perfunctorily.
BTS’ success cannot be confined to the business sector alone. It also applies to politics. The Blue House underscored the need to communicate with the general public when it changed the job title of the senior presidential secretary for public affairs to the senior secretary for public communication. Lawmakers from both the left and the right are flocking to social media platforms to convey their political messages — with some even launching online broadcasts like YouTube. Some politicians manage to attract hundreds of thousands of likes on their comments, leading them to believe they’re communicating with their public.
Communication is about sharing views with different people and reaching a certain conclusion based on a free flow of thoughts. What Korea’s political domain is doing isn’t communication — it’s PR. Politicians rarely try to accept public feedback and use it for future reference.
Real communication means that when someone hears a critique, they don't try to blame the person who’s giving the analysis, but instead try to persuade the person into thinking differently or apply that comment into actual policy-making if what they’re saying proves to be useful.
Watching our politicians’ YouTube videos, I have noticed most of their content is very partisan or inflammatory, which makes me wonder how much of their talk is actually true: they lack sincerity. I assume most listeners are core supporters of a certain politician or a party, not those with different angles.
Sincerity and communication are what rocketed BTS to world stardom. They managed to impress global fans, not by pretending to communicate with them, but by genuinely pursuing a two-way interaction. Only after seeing their feedback reflected in a company’s products can people become a fan of the company.
The political and business sectors must take a leaf out of BTS’ book.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Sunday, March 16-17, Page 31